SM-Leather-Fetish educational and social organizations consider the cornerstone of SM activity to be the guidelines: "safe, sane, and consensual." While it is possible to do any activity in a reckless and dangerous manner, SM is no more dangerous than skiing or other thrilling activities.
Safe is being knowledgeable about the techniques and safety concerns involved in what you are doing, and acting in accordance with that knowledge. Safety includes the responsibility of protecting yourself and your partner from STD (sexually tranSMitted disease) infection including the HIV virus.
While the media often portrays the more extreme SM behaviors, the reality is that a lot of SM play never goes beyond a playful spanking. Just as there are ways to reduce the risk in activities such as scuba diving or driving a car, there are ways to reduce the risk and engage in SM behavior safely.
The organized SM community is active in promoting safety seminars and teaching the practitioners how to engage in these behaviors safely. The fact that SM practitioners are not clogging the emergency rooms every weekend, is an indication that these programs are working. If SM injuries were occurring, it seems obvious that the press would be highlighting this for the entertainment of its readers/viewers.
Sane is knowing the difference between fantasy and reality. Fictional accounts of SM are often distorted for fantasy sake, and are not representative of real situations and relationships.
Sane also distinguishes between mental illness and health. A real distinction between mental illness and health is when a behavior pattern causes problems in a person[base ']s life. Washing your hands until the skin is peeling off, or so frequently that you can not otherwise function is a sign mental illness. SM, like any other behavior, can be a sign of psychiatric problems. However the vast majority of its practitioners find that SM enriches and promotes functionality in the other areas of their life.
Consensual is respecting the limits imposed by each participant at all times.
Consent is the prime ingredient of SM. One difference between rape and heterosexual intercourse is consent. One difference between violence and SM is consent. The same behaviors that might be crimes without consent are life-enhancing with consent.
The type and parameters of control are agreed upon by the people involved, and the ongoing consent of all participants is required. Some practitioners use a safeword, which is a designated word that signals the scene must slow down or stop.
Rick Houlberg writes in "The Magazine of a Sadomasochism Club: The Tie That Binds":
"The only 'cardinal' rules which the Club's membership insists each member must uphold are that all SM activities must be consensual, nonexploitative, and safe. As children are not considered to be able to consent, all activities must be between adults. The consensual and safety rules of the Club are constantly being reinforced. Safety and etiquette issues, including restrictions on overt and heavy drug use, are strongly stressed at new-member orientations and in all written materials produced by the Club."
Rick Houlberg (1993). "The Magazine of a Sadomasochism Club: The Tie That Binds." Journal of Homosexuality 21 (1/2), Haworth Press: pg. 167-83.